The following comments represent my preliminary findings following my official visit to Iraq between 9 and 15 May, at the invitation of the Government of Iraq. This visit follows that undertaken by my predecessor Mr. Walter Kälin in 2010. During my visit I travelled to Baghdad and to Erbil and areas in the vicinity of Erbil to consult widely with Government representatives at the national and regional level, United Nations and other international and national humanitarian and human rights partners, and civil society, on issues relating to the human rights of internally displaced persons. An important element of my visit was to consult IDPs and to see their situations first hand and to hear from them about their conditions, needs and expectations. I thank the Government of Iraq for its invitation to visit and for the high level meetings provided, including with Prime Minister Al-Abadi, as well as the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq and UN Agencies for facilitating all aspects of my visit.
Primary responsibility to protect and assist internally displaced persons lies on Governments. The Government of Iraq has demonstrated political will and commitment to address the situation of IDPs. Positive measures and the steps it has taken to do so must be acknowledged. However the displacement crisis in Iraq is one of huge proportions, estimated at close to 3 million internally displaced persons and growing. The protection dilemma is that on the one hand, the capacity of the Government to meet the needs of internally displaced persons is limited, and on the other hand, United Nations agencies are constrained by a lack of international support to deal with the humanitarian situation in Iraq. While the country is perceived as a medium income country with oil resources, global oil prices have fallen and the Government has prioritised costly counter insurgency measures against ISIS.
In this context, the reality is that the protection needs of many of the millions of IDPs in Iraq have not been met or protected according to international law and standards, including the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. The Government’s approach has been largely ad hoc and it must intensify its efforts and devote greater resources, planning and attention to meeting the needs of IDPs. While a policy on the treatment of IDPs was previously formulated by the Ministry of Displacement and Migration, it is not fully implemented in practice. To improve the Government’s response to the displacement crisis a vital step will be to put in place a legal and policy framework on IDPs, implemented nationally with budgets in place and more effective governance and response structures and institutions. This will help to guide and regulate Government action at the national and regional levels.
It is telling that figures of the number of IDPs across the country vary greatly and there is a need for more and accurate data about their number, location and needs. What is starkly evident however, is that hundreds of thousands, including persons from all ethnic and religious communities are living in extremely precarious conditions and often under the constant threat of violence or further displacement, many under suspicion, and with inadequate shelter, healthcare food and water. While some education initiatives exist, most internally displaced children are not receiving education above what basic primary schooling can be provided within IDP communities. Many have few if any financial resources and little prospects of employment or income generating activities. Of particular concern is the negative role of ISIS in causing displacement and the situation of the hundreds of thousands of IDPs who remain in territory controlled by ISIS, out of reach of humanitarian assistance.
Documentation and registration are essential first steps to ensuring assistance to IDPs. However, many have lost documents or had them confiscated and consequently face challenges to their registration and to gaining access to assistance. The problem was emphasised to me in the story of one internally displaced family who reportedly told aid workers “we could not save our daughter…how could we save our documents?” Efforts to ensure that all IDPs are registered to receive benefits and assistance are essential and require better coordination between responsible ministries including the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry for Displacement and Migration. The nature of the displacement crisis and the restrictions upon IDPs to travel to access protection or take steps to renew documents may require innovative solutions, including the use of mobile documentation and registration facilities to reach IDPs in their locations and assist them as a matter of urgency.
Internally displaced persons are frequently living in substandard conditions in camps and other collective shelters as well as unfinished buildings. Many live with host families putting a heavy burden on them and assistance must also be provided to those families and displacement affected communities. While others are in rented accommodation or housed in hotels, their situation is precarious since their financial resources are low or exhausted and they are unable to pay rents, resulting in evictions. In Debaga, between Erbil and Mosul, I visited 710 families living in tents in extreme conditions and reliant on humanitarian assistance for food, water, healthcare and other essential needs. This situation is replicated in hundreds of locations around the country where IDPs from different ethnic and religious groups face harsh conditions and uncertainty about their futures. Stifling summer temperatures require ‘summerization’ measures to create adequate living conditions and prevent illness and the spread of disease as temperatures soar. Those living in tents and unfinished constructions require urgent re-housing. The elderly, persons with disabilities, pregnant women and other highly vulnerable persons must be the highest priority.
A one-off cash payment to IDP families of around 700 USD (1 million Iraqi Dinar) per family is grossly inadequate and insufficient to cover basic needs including shelter, food, and essential items. Some IDPs who I interviewed reported not having received this grant due to obstacles, including lack of documents and registration, administrative delays and possible barriers based on their ethnic or religious identity. Proposed measures to increase cash payments to IDPs, including via a ‘Smartcard` system for monthly payments, are welcome but must be put into effect as soon as possible. The Government must dedicate the required financial assistance to IDPs as the highest priority. Following the good practice of other countries that I have visited such as Azerbaijan, I recommend that a fund be created for IDPs and humanitarian assistance based on a guaranteed percentage of oil revenues set aside to protect and assist IDPs.
Access to safety for IDPs is a fundamental right and a paramount concern that must be addressed urgently to avoid further deaths and violence against IDPs, including sexual and gender based violence. I received disturbing reports of IDPs being barred entry to some safe locations on the basis of their identity or place of origin, which potentially places them at significant risk. I was informed of ‘sponsorship’ requirements for access by some IDPs to Baghdad and other locations, which are deeply concerning since many are not able to meet such requirements. In one case at least 100 families reportedly had to return to Ramadi where their homes had been damaged at a time when ISIS controlled much of the city, putting their lives in grave danger. Now that Ramadi has reportedly fallen to ISIS, IDPs, including men from there must be given access to safe locations. The Babylon Governorate reportedly refused to admit displaced men aged between 15 and 50, putting them at risk and causing family separation as women and children are allowed entry.
In numerous locations IDPs have faced restrictions on their freedom of movement that contravene international standards. They have a right to freely move and take flight as well as to freely choose where to relocate. Measures should be taken to facilitate that right and to assist their movement, irrespective of their ethnic or religious identity, in safety as well as to provide all necessary assistance to them. While legitimate security concerns were reported to me by the Iraqi authorities, including that ISIS fighters may have infiltrated IDP communities, it must be recalled that the overwhelming majority of IDPs are innocent victims of conflict and they must be respected and treated on a humanitarian basis. Any restrictions on movement must be temporary and justified, specified in law and non-discriminatory, and in situations of risk all barriers to access to safe location for IDPs must be immediately lifted.
Arrest and detention of IDPs was reported and raises concerns, including with regard to due process, conditions and duration of detention, and access to those detained by lawyers and family members. Some IDPs reported to me that male family members had been detained since February 2015 and that they had had little or no information about their location or contact with them. International standards require that no person can be arbitrarily detained or held without charge and those who have not been charged with a crime should be released without delay. The creation of ‘militias’ and their activities and control over certain areas and population groups is cause for concern and I have received reports of militias destroying homes, forcing people to leave their homes or preventing their return.
The sectarian nature of the conflict in Iraq is also evident in the profile and situation of different groups of internally displaced persons. Many groups, including minorities, are particularly vulnerable due to their ethnic or religious identity and allegations of discriminatory treatment by the authorities have been made and must be taken seriously and ended where they are found to exist. It is imperative that humanitarian assistance is provided on an equal basis to all in need, irrespective of their identity, location or place of origin, in accordance with the humanitarian principles and practice.
The situation of women and girls who have been internally displaced is particularly alarming. Credible reports indicate the systematic use of sexual violence, forced marriage, sexual slavery and other forms of sexual and gender based violence perpetrated in particular by ISIS. The level of domestic violence against women has also reportedly increased as families face grave conditions, lack economic security and employment. I note the recent visit by the Special Representative of the Secretary General on sexual and gender based violence to Iraq and I urge the Government to fully cooperate with her Action Plan and implement her recommendations, including for IDP women who are highly vulnerable.
The situation of IDPs in Iraq is grave and humanitarian assistance must be the highest priority to save lives now. However, the Government of Iraq, together with its national and international humanitarian and development partners must already begin to take steps towards durable solutions and improving resilience and recovery strategies, as well as community reconciliation and social cohesion projects that address the possibility of return to their homes for some, local integration or settlement in other parts of the country for those who are unable or unwilling to return. No IDP should be forced to return or relocate against their will. Where the possibility of voluntary, safe and dignified return exists, it must be recognized that justice, reconciliation and the rebuilding of trust between communities may be required in the short, medium and long-term and this may require specially trained units, police and other public officials to avoid problems and tensions emerging.
The prospect of vast new displacement is very real and requires a level of preparedness that has been absent in the past. Disturbing ongoing developments, including the fall of Ramadi to ISIS will certainly result in massive new displacement. Measures must be taken to ensure protection and that needs, including shelter and humanitarian assistance, are prepared for a potentially deteriorating and nation-wide IDP crisis in Iraq. A likely military operation by the Government of Iraq to re-take Mosul from ISIS, for example, is already predicted to result in hundreds of thousands of newly displaced persons due to the conflict and other factors, including fear of reprisals against the residents of Mosul for their perceived collaboration. It is essential that all possible measures be taken before any offensive action to ensure that necessary protection is accorded and needs are met such as shelter and that humanitarian assistance is pre-positioned and ready to be distributed.
The United Nations humanitarian agencies in Iraq as well as other international organizations are plugging the huge gap in humanitarian assistance to IDPs and refugees to the best of their ability. Their staff must be commended and some have lost their lives in the exercise of their essential work. However they are stretched thin and can only work with the confines of the resources and access that they have. Those resources and access are gravely inadequate at the present time. These dedicated agencies bear the brunt of criticism on the ground and yet it is the shortfall in funding across all sectors, including shelter, food, water and sanitation, protection and many other areas, that hampers their work and is a shame on both the Government of Iraq and the international community. As stated already, the Government of Iraq lacks the capacity and resources to fully meet the humanitarian needs of IDPs and current and future development and reconstruction requirements are equally massive. It is therefore imperative that the international community does not turn its back on Iraq, recognizes the challenges that the country faces, and remains a consistent and reliable partner in providing humanitarian and development assistance.